Log In

Reset Password

Looking for answers in Lehigh County

Members of the Parents’ Medical Rights Group held a protest outside the Lehigh Valley Health Network John Van Brakle Child Advocacy Center Aug. 30, demanding action on Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley’s recommendations to reform the county’s Office of Children and Youth Services. At the same time, members of the public have been calling the controller’s office, looking for answers.

On Aug. 23, Pinsley released the results of an internal investigation into Lehigh County’s child abuse review process, and discussed these results at the county board of commissioners meeting. During the meeting, roughly 30 members of families who allege that they have been harmed by the county’s procedures went further, naming Dr. Debra Esernio-Jenssen, lead medical officer of the John Van Brakle Child Advocacy Center, as a key contributor to their woes. The families allege that Dr. Jenssen sometimes sees abuse where none exists, and that county caseworkers defer inappropriately to her judgment.

Without naming Dr. Jenssen, Pinsley has requested that child abuse reports originating inside any particular hospital be reviewed by a physician not employed by that same hospital. He has also asked that second medical opinions be required when the county is recommending removal of a child from his home.

“My phone has blown up,” Pinsley says. “What [callers] don’t understand is why the families don’t get a chance to tell the judge their side of the story. And then why the judge isn’t asking for a second opinion.”

One PMRG member, who gave the Press her name but asked that it not be used, described what she saw as shortcomings of the investigation procedure.

“[M]y husband, daughter, and other family members were never interviewed,” she said, and asserted, “Dr. Jenssen dismissed the medical opinion of professionals within the network.”

Cynthia Rossi-Schaeffer, a family member of another accused couple, argued for “an independent investigation into LVHN and OCYS and independent second opinions.” Focusing on the child abuse pediatrician at the LVHN CAC, she asked, “Why does one person have this much power?”

County policies

at issue

The controversial OCYS policies that concern PMRG and county residents are part of the protocol for investigating allegations of child abuse. However, some of the issues raised by the controller and by parents – including the review of LVHN-initiated reports by LVHN medical staff – stem from the fact that these issues are not addressed by the protocol.

The multidisciplinary team protocol (MDT protocol) for the John Van Brakle Child Advocacy Center was established and is maintained under the joint auspices of the county district attorney and OCYS. Lehigh County OCYS provided the Press with a digital, partially redacted copy in response to a request. This copy was signed and dated (Dec. 19, 2022) on the final page by LVHN CAC administrator Lisa Liddington, Lehigh County DA James B. Martin, LVHN Chief of Child Protection Medicine Debra Esernio-Jenssen, Allentown Police Chief Charles Roca, and Lehigh County Commissioner Daniel McCarthy.

Four sections of the protocol provided to the Press were completely redacted with black boxes: “Decisions regarding Criminal Prosecution,” “Court Preparation and Support,” “Law Enforcement,” and “District Attorney.”

According to the protocol, the MDT consists of the following individuals or groups: LVHN Dept. of Child Protection Medicine, Lehigh County Office of the DA, Lehigh County Special Victims Unit detectives, Allentown Police Department, Lehigh County OCYS, a forensic interviewer, mental health professionals, family advocates, and LVHN CAC staff. The protocol document mentions the inclusion of “peripheral individuals” on a case-by-case basis.

However, the description of MDT operations seems to assume that the “family advocates” who are part of the MDT do not include advocates for accused family members. Indeed, much of the protocol – like the brochure for the LVHN CAC (lvhn.org/sites/default/files/uploads/PDFs/CACFamilyBooklet.pdf)--appears to apply only to situations in which the alleged perpetrator is outside the family. This oversight is notable, given that in 2022, 26 percent of perpetrators in substantiated abuse cases were the victim’s mother, and 24 percent were the victim’s father.

Procedural details include the use of joint investigations involving all members of the MDT “whenever possible,” and under the direction of the lead police officer; the use of the lead police officer as the director of suspect interviews; and the use of the lead police officer in ensuring that all medical reports be collected. The protocol permits only OCYS to take custody of a child, except for 24 hours of immediate protection by a physician, or custody by law enforcement in a situation posing immediate danger to the child. No guidance is provided for handling child abuse reports made by LVHN staff or involving LVHN staff as potential abusers.

State funding

for CAC

When child abuse legislation passed the state legislature in 2013 and 2014, Harrisburg lawmakers tasked each county district attorney and OCYS with creating “a protocol for the convening of multidisciplinary investigative teams for any case of child abuse” (Public Law 1235, No. 123, Cl. 23, 2013). The statute further specifies, “The county multidisciplinary investigative team protocol shall include standards and procedures to be used in receiving and referring reports and coordinating investigations of reported cases of child abuse […] The protocol shall include any other standards and procedures […] to minimize the trauma to the child.”

The John Van Brakle Child Advocacy Center at LVHN was established in 2014 in partnership with the Lehigh County district attorney’s office, and in July 2021, Northampton County DA Terence Houck entered into an agreement with Lehigh County DA Jim Martin for the CAC to serve Northampton County as well.

The Van Brakle CAC, through Lehigh County or through LVHN, has been the recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars – nearly $350,000 – in state grant monies since its inception.

In 2014, Gov. Tom Corbett signed P.L. 383, No. 18, Cl. 35, which (among other actions) doubled the price of birth certificates in Pa., with 75 percent of fees in subsequent years earmarked for the Pa. Commission on Crime and Delinquency to disburse as grants funding child advocacy centers and multidisciplinary investigative teams.

In December 2014, Lehigh County was awarded $50,000 by the Child Advocacy Center Advisory Committee of the PCCD, for a project called “2014 Child Advocacy Center” (#25698). The county was awarded just over $20,000 for a similarly titled project in December 2015.

In December 2017, LVHN was awarded more than $17,000 by the PCCD to help the Van Brakle Child Advocacy Center work on meeting the standards of National Children’s Alliance accreditation. In December 2018, the PCCD gave LVHN nearly $46,000 for the same purpose, a grant which has been renewed annually each December, at roughly the same $46,000 annual funding amount. According to NationalChildrensAlliance.org, the LVHN CAC is still only an Associate CAC, which means that it has met several, but not all, NCA standards for accreditation. CACs in neighboring Berks, Bucks, and Montgomery counties are fully accredited.

CONTRIBUTED PRESS PHOTOS Parents' Medical Rights Group member Grace Robinson holds a sign reading, “Stop medical kidnappings.” Robinson said she attended the protest to ask Lehigh County to “adopt the controller's recommendations of seeking a second opinion specialist relevant to the child's medical condition before removing a child from their home due to a doctor's abuse diagnosis, and to encourage LVHN and the counties served by LVHN to engage independent third parties to evaluate their processes, procedures, and case files.”
CONTRIBUTED PRESS PHOTOS Protesters outside the Lehigh Valley Health Network John Van Brakle Child Advocacy Center Aug. 30.